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  • Reviewed from the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

You Won’t Be Alone starts off in the earth, down in the dirt and grass of rural 19th-century Macedonia, and the supernatural folk story that it then tells seems to rise up out of the soil. A mother coos to her baby girl that the Wolf-Eateress will smite her, and the words duly summon the entity in question, initially in the form of actor Anamaria Marinca under full-body prosthetics of scorched and wrinkled flesh. But this is a story of shape-shifting and cyclical rebirth, for the Wolf-Eateress herself as much as the characters she terrorises.

The apparition says she just wants to have a little of the newborn’s blood, a vampiric birth rite in which a wince-inducing injury to the baby’s mouth takes away the child’s power of speech forever. From this point on the child, who will grow up to be named Nevena, is mute on screen but addresses the audience in a voice-over of hushed whispered epigrams, somewhere between ancient lore and cut-up poetry. “Are women wasps?” the voice muses at one point. “Are kisses chains?”

Written and directed by Macedonian/Australian film maker Goran Stolevski, the film is inherently, intently in fact, concerned with both what women are and what kisses do, and the place of both in what looks to be an agrarian culture of staunchly masculine effort.

The charred crone, mainly referred to as Old Maid Maria, which has a few word associations of its own, turns the teenage Nevena into a protean skin-walker, able to shed one body and inhabit another by a process initiated through gouging flesh out of the target’s chest. This lets her transfer out of her own life and across into that of somebody else, although since Maria promptly calls Nevena a disappointment and abandons her, the witch might mean the magic gift to be a curse.

Left to fend for herself, Nevena proceeds to go through a sequence of fresh identities — played by fresh performers — in different village communities, encountering hardships or some faltering happiness, with Old Maid Maria sometimes scowling from a vantage point in the forest.

The process allows the film to cycle through a number of scenarios. Nevena assumes the form of Bosilka (Noomi Rapace), a new mother in a group where it turns out that women have no agency at all. “When the man is in the room, the mouth should never open,” says an in-law to the already mute Nevena that looks like Bosilka. “When the man is in the room, you are stew.” Old Maid Maria returns and calls Nevena a twit for choosing a role as mother and wife: “a prison,” scolds the succubus.

Perhaps predictably, Nevena then becomes a man, and for a while plays a full role in the bucolic agrarian life of the world; sensing that something is amiss, the village elders attempt a form of exorcism on the happy lunk, presumably to dispel whatever feminine elements they detect. Later, Nevena becomes a young girl named Biliana in order to save the girl’s life at the cost of her own masculine existence. She remains as Biliana long enough to grow into a teenager and a young woman (in the form of Alice Englert), then a wife, and then mother herself to a daughter – “a female, alas” commiserate the village’s old ladies.

You Won’t Be Alone will be labelled a horror story for its gouged flesh and dripping viscera, and for the origin story of Old Maid Maria, which involves a vivid burning at the stake after violent misogynist abuse. Inevitably, any narration of breathy maxims over shots of the natural world is going to attract the name of Terrence Malick, especially in a film willing to spread its longueurs out over 108 minutes.

But those arrows point in the wrong direction. The self-indulgence and self-awareness in the premise and the performing aren’t without comedic elements: Noomi Rapace investigates the world by going eye to eye with a cockerel at one point. Meanwhile the film’s pot pourri of feminism and fatalism, of young women cycling into old women and back, not to mention the sight of a character morphing into a large hairy canine, has strong evocations of Angela Carter. The film is a transgressive, and trans, fairy tale of fertility and maternity.